Earlier this week, a tweet was born that captured the imagination of a divided nation. It came from Arkansas, and it was a response to musician Jason Isbell, who had suggested no one actually needs a so-called assault weapon. William McNabb, whose bio says he is a husband, father, Christian, libertarian, and more, had a question for Isbell:
The tweet was an immediate sensation. Someone made a video game (“Protect your 2 children from 30-50 feral hogs within a 3-5 mins time limit“), Slate published a feral hog–themed riff on a classic short story, and feral hogs trended on Twitter. The tweet was wonderfully specific, and the image it conjured was absurd on its face. Making feral hog jokes became a welcome respite from days of mourning mass shootings and arguing about their causes online.
But there was one question that few people thought to ask: What if feral hog guy was right?
“They are one of the world’s worst invasive species,” said John Mayer, a feral hog expert and author of Wild Pigs in the United States: Their History, Comparative Morphology, and Current Status—who had heard about the tweet “anecdotally” but had not seen it himself when I called him, and didn’t sound very amused by it. “They do an amazing variety of damage, and the magnitude of the damage is just off the charts.”
Feral hogs, or Sus scrofa, are a non-native species introduced to the United States in the 16th century by explorers, according to the Department of Agriculture. For most of the 20th century, there were about 2 million wild pigs spread across 20 states, mostly in the South, with a fairly stable population and range. After 1990, however, that population exploded and expanded for reasons I’ll get to in a moment. Now, 48 states have reported the animals’ presence, and the population is between 6 million and 7 million. Mayer calls it the “pig bomb.”
Feral hogs trample crops, tear up parks and playgrounds, destroy native habitats, and kill other wildlife like fawns and turkeys. According to the recent USDA video “FERAL SWINE: Manage the Damage,” the animals now cause annual damage of more than $1.5 billion in the U.S., and experts warn the problem could get worse. “They have the potential to really do epic harm,” Stephanie Shwiff, a National Wildlife Research Center research economist, says in the video. “We’re at the tip of the iceberg here.” In June, the USDA announced it is offering $75 million in funding to eradicate and control feral swine.
And it’s not just property damage. Wild hogs cause dangerous vehicle accidents. No one knows the exact number, but a 2010 estimate was 10,000 hog-vehicle collisions for every 1 million hogs. (The typical male wild hog weighs 200 pounds, which is heavier than the typical male white-tailed deer.) Then there’s the specter of a North American outbreak of African swine fever, which is currently making its way across Europe. Mayer warned that if the disease crosses the ocean and gets into our wild pig population, it could cost the domestic pork industry “hundreds of billions” in lost sales and animals. In some states, including Texas and Florida, the animals are now making their way from rural areas into suburbs and even cities.
Occasionally, as at least one Arkansas man might tell you, feral hogs can kill. “Pigs are killing more people than sharks are,” Mayer said. “You never hear about them on the news, but they’re dangerous.” (There were fewer than 70 fatal shark attacks worldwide between 2007 and 2017, but 84 fatal pig attacks, according to Mayer.) The animals breed year-round and reproduce quickly; a Texas A&M website devoted to hog control for landowners calls them “the most prolific large mammal on the face of the Earth.”
So what about the Arkansas man’s specific scenario, in which a herd of 30 to 50 feral hogs runs into one’s yard within three to five minutes while one’s small kids play? Mayer said a group of 30 to 50 feral hogs is not out of the question, though most groups are smaller. There are (sometimes ex-military) contractors for hire who use semiautomatic weapons to control herds, he said, but the average homeowner should not be using ”assault weapons” on feral hogs.
For one, it wouldn’t work: The first shot would cause the rest of the herd to scatter chaotically like a flock of birds. “You’re going to kill one pig, and what happens to the 29? Well, they’ll likely be back, and they learn: They’ll come back at night.” If a large herd is posing a consistent menace, Mayer recommended either fencing the property or trapping the entire group using an expensive and complex but effective method known as “whole-sounder trapping.”
So who is to blame for the 1990 “pig bomb” that got us into this mess? Mostly hunters, in Mayer’s telling. Starting in the 1950s or so, a few state governments in the South started to promote wild pig hunting as an opportunity for hunters to expand beyond animals like deer and shoot a more exotic kind of big game. As other hunters read about feral hog hunting, some of them illegally imported small groups of wild hogs to northern states, where they would let them loose and then hunt them down. (In northern New England, where I live, wildlife experts believe the small, local wild boar population is entirely descended from a 20,000-acre game preserve founded in the 19th century.) Now, feral hogs are running wild from North Carolina to Ohio to North Dakota to Washington state. “Within that one animal, you’ve got one of the worst invasive species on the face of the earth, and you’ve also got one of the most popular big game animals,” Mayer said wistfully. “There’s nothing else like it.”